Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Prison Tourism

Prison in the basement of the Doge's palace in Venice.
When Kurt was running for class president on Glee, he promised to ban dodgeball from McKinley High as part of a larger effort to reduce bullying and other forms of violence at the school.  In this platform, he joined a nationwide movement to remove this game, which involves having kids throw big red balls at each other, from US schools.  Some people have criticized this campaign, arguing that children should learn to manage conflict and play fairly:  teach them how to play "good" dodgeball instead of removing the game all together.  I think this point is well taken, but since the only serious conflict my daughter was involved in during middle school occurred while participating in dodgeball during gym class, I side with the ban. Exchange the war games for the making of the mushroom with parachute fabric. That was always my favorite gym activity.


I was thinking about Kurt and getting whacked in the head with a red ball as I wandered through the Doge's Palace in Venice last week.  Different spelling, same-ish pronunciation.  The Doge was the leader of the Republic of Venice back in the day (i.e. 700 - 1700).  Once elected, he held the office for life.  The Doge ruled along with councils and tribunals of wealthy Venetian men and could be either ceremonial or omnipotent, depending on the character and ambition of the individual.


The Doge's Palace is located right off of Piazza San Marco, next to the Basilica, and is one of Venice's central tourist attractions.  After wandering through the exquisite chambers of the Doge and his buddies, the tour brings you into the basement of the building which served as the city's prison.  The cells are dark and cold with iron bars on the windows and thick wooden doors with bulky locks.


Door to Prison Cell in Doge's Palace
I am intrigued by the whole idea of old prisons as tourist attractions. If you have been reading my blog, you will know this is not my first prison tourism trip. Perhaps you have also visited a cell or two in your travels? I found the visit to the Doge's prisons to be quite solemn. People were quiet, took some pictures, keep moving. There is little desire to linger, eyes searching for the green arrows that lead to the exit. It's hard not to pass judgement on the society that created these spaces and treated their fellow human beings so badly. The conditions of incarceration seemed to be harsh even for those prisoners who had broken the law but especially for those had been framed by authorities or were too poor and uneducated to defend themselves. Victims of the Doge's ambitions and fears.


Will our own contemporary correctional institutions someday be sites like these? The orange suits, ironed and pinned carefully against a cork board, protected by a plastic display box. Will tourists stand silently on the tiers of Niantic's Zero South and take pictures of the dingy cells while reading the curator's summary of the 20th Century Drug Wars? What will they think of the society that created these spaces? Incarcerating people who had broken the law and others who were framed by authorities or were too poor and uneducated to defend themselves, victims of the ambition of politicians seeking to secure power and influence by appearing tough on crime. 


Strange to think these places may be just one more stop on the itinerary before folks hustle onward for a lobster roll on the boardwalk, an afternoon at Mystic Aquarium and, perhaps, a quick visit to the Dodgeball Museum.